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It may be safely asserted, that the grand distinction, which divided all mankind into Jews and Gentiles, was not only religious, but also social. However near the cities of the heathen to those of Israel, however frequent and close the intercourse between the two parties, no one could have entered a Jewish town or village without feeling, so to speak, in quite another world. The aspect of the streets, the building and arrangement of the houses, the municipal and religious rule, the manners and customs of the people, their habits and ways--above all, the family life, stood in marked contrast to what would be seen elsewhere. On every side there was evidence that religion here was not merely a creed, nor a set of observances, but that it pervaded every relationship, and dominated every phase of life.
Let us imagine a real Jewish town or village. There were many such, for Palestine had at all times a far larger number of towns and villages than might have been expected from its size, or from the general agricultural pursuits of its inhabitants. Even at the time of its first occupation under Joshua we find somewhere about six hundred towns--if we may judge by the Levitical cities, of about an average circumference of two thousand cubits on each side, and with probably an average population of from two to three thousand. But the number of towns and villages, as well as their populousness, greatly increased in later times. Thus Josephus (Life, 45) speaks of not fewer than two hundred and forty townships in Galilee alone in his days. This progress was, no doubt, due not only to the rapid development of society, but also to the love of building that characterised Herod and his family, and to which so many fortresses, palaces, temples, and towns owed their origin. Alike the New Testament, Josephus, and the Rabbis give us three names, which may be rendered by villages, townships, and towns--the latter being surrounded by walls, and again distinguished into those fortified already at the time of Joshua, and those of later date. A township might be either "great," if it had its synagogue, or small, if it wanted such; this being dependent on the residence of at least ten men, who could always be reckoned upon to form a quorum for the worship of the synagogue (the so-called Batlanin *); for service could not be celebrated with any less number of males.
* From "betal," to cease--as the glossary to Baba B. 82 a explains: men without reproach, who gave up their work to give themselves wholly to the work of the synagogue. Such had a claim to support from the synagogue revenues.
The villages had no synagogue; but their inhabitants were supposed to go to the nearest township for market on the Monday and Thursday of every week, when service was held for them, and the local Sanhedrim also sat (Megill. i. 1-3). A very curious law provided (Cheth. 110), that a man could not oblige his wife to follow him if he moved either from a township to a town, or the reverse. The reason of the former provision was, that in a town people lived together, and the houses were close to each other; hence there was a want of fresh, free air, and of gardens, which were enjoyed in townships. On the other hand, a woman might object to exchange residence in a town for one in a township, because in a town everything was to be got, and people met in the streets and market-place from all the neighborhood.
Statements like these will give some idea of the difference between town and country life. Let us first think of the former. Approaching one of the ancient fortified towns, one would come to a low wall that protected a ditch. Crossing this moat, one would be at the city wall proper, and enter through a massive gate, often covered with iron, and secured by strong bars and bolts. Above the gate rose the watch-tower. "Within the gate" was the shady or sheltered retreat where "the elders" sat. Here grave citizens discussed public affairs or the news of the day, or transacted important business. The gates opened upon large squares, on which the various streets converged. Here was the busy scene of intercourse and trade. The country-people stood or moved about, hawking the produce of field, orchard, and dairy; the foreign merchant or pedlar exposed his wares, recommending the newest fashions from Rome or Alexandria, the latest luxuries from the far East, or the art produce of the goldsmith and the modeller at Jerusalem, while among them moved the crowd, idle or busy, chattering, chaffing, good-humored, and bandying witticisms. Now they give way respectfully before a Pharisee; or their conversation is hushed by the weird appearance of an Essene or of some sectary--political or religious,--while low, muttered curses attend the stealthy steps of the publican, whose restless eyes wander around to watch that nothing escape the close meshes of the tax-gatherer's net. These streets are all named, mostly after the trades or guilds which have there their bazaars. For a guild always keeps together, whether in street or synagogue. In Alexandria the different trades sat in the synagogue arranged into guilds; and St. Paul could have no difficulty in meeting in the bazaar of his trade with the like-minded Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:2,3), with whom to find a lodging. In these bazaars many of the workmen sat outside their shops, and, in the interval of labor, exchanged greetings or banter with the passers-by. For all Israel are brethren, and there is a sort of freemasonry even in the Jewish mode of salutation, which always embodied either an acknowledgment of the God of Israel, or a brotherly wish of peace. Excitable, impulsive, quick, sharp-witted, imaginative; fond of parable, pithy sayings, acute distinctions, or pungent wit; reverent towards God and man, respectful in the presence of age, enthusiastic of learning and of superior mental endowments, most delicately sensitive in regard to the feelings of others; zealous, with intensely warm Eastern natures, ready to have each prejudice aroused, hasty and violent in passion, but quickly assuaged--such is the motley throng around. And now, perhaps, the voice of a Rabbi, teaching in some shady retreat--although latterly Jewish pride of learning forbade the profanation of lore by popularising it for the "unlearned"--or, better far, at one time the presence of the Master, gathers and keeps them spell-bound, forgetful alike of the cravings of hunger and of the lapse of time, till, the short Eastern day ended, the stars shining out on the deep blue sky must have reminded many among them of the promise to their father Abraham, now fulfilled in One greater than Abraham.
Back to the town in the cool of even to listen to the delicious murmur of well or fountain, as those crowd around it who have not cisterns in their own houses. The watchman is on the top of the tower above the gateway; presently, night-watchers will patrol the streets. Nor is there absolute darkness, for it is customary to keep a light burning all night in the house, and the windows (unlike those of modern Eastern dwellings) open chiefly on street and road. Those large windows are called Tyrian, the smaller ones Egyptian. They are not filled in with glass, but contain gratings or lattices. In the houses of the rich the window-frames are elaborately carved, and richly inlaid. Generally the woodwork is of the common sycamore, sometimes of olive or cedar, and in palaces even of Indian sandal-wood. The entablature is more or less curiously carved and ornamented. Only there must be no representation of anything in heaven or on earth. So deep was the feeling on this point, that even the attempt of Pilate to introduce by night into Jerusalem the effigies of Caesar on the top of the Roman standards led to scenes in which the Jews showed themselves willing to die for their convictions (Josephus, Ant, xviii, 59); while the palace of Herod Antipas at Tiberias was burned by the mob because it was decorated with figures of animals (Josephus, Life, 62-67). These extreme views, however, gave way, first, before the tolerant example of Gamaliel, the teacher of Paul, who made use of a public bath, although adorned by a statue of Venus, since, as he put it, the statue was intended for the embellishment of the bath, and not the bath for the sake of the statue. If this argument reminds us that Gamaliel was not a stranger to Christianity, the statement of his grandson, that an idol was nothing if its worship had been disclaimed by the heathen (Ab. Sar. 52), recalls still more strongly the teaching of St. Paul. And so we gradually come down to the modern orthodox doctrine, which allows the representation of plants, animals, etc., but prohibits that of sun, moon, and stars, except for purposes of study, while, though doubtfully, it admits those of men and even angels, provided they be in sunken, not in raised workmanship.